Would You Donate a Kidney to a Stranger?

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Harold Mintz at his emotional first meeting with his kidney recepient, Gennet Belay

On Dec. 12, 2000, a team of surgeons at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC took out Harold Mintz’s healthy left kidney, put it in iced water and passed it off to be driven across the Potomac River to Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, where another team of surgeons put the kidney inside someone Mintz didn’t know and had never met before.

He didn’t receive any financial reward; he did it because he wanted to help someone — a complete stranger — who desperately needed it.

Mintz, 58, said he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about being an altruistic organ donor, but if that’s what it takes to convince young people to think about ticking the box that says “Yes” to being an organ donor on their driver’s license, he will.

Mintz, who lives in Paradise Cove with his wife, Susan, and son, Shy, scoffs at the suggestion he’s a hero and insists he’s just a regular guy. He didn’t wake up one day and decide to give away body parts, but came to the decision in 1999 following the death of his father. 

“Many things happened to bring me to the decision. One of the bigger ones was my father passing away at only 56, from cancer. From the day he found out he was sick to passing was only six weeks,” Mintz said. “It was a big shock for our family. Then I saw a movie on a plane about organ donation and learned that you don’t have to give it to a close family member. I made a note of the phone number on screen.”

He called the National Kidney Foundation number a few months later. 

“At the time, I was just curious. It was very unusual then to give a kidney to someone you don’t know — so rare, they didn’t have a protocol in place for it,” he said.

A year later, the first altruistic community-based program was established that happened to be in Washington, DC — then Mintz’s neighborhood — and he received a phone call asking if he was still interested.

Mintz agreed to find out more and discussed it with his wife who, after some “emotional conversations,” gave her blessing. Then came medicals tests, starting with a psyche exam, which Mintz passed.

There were 10 donors in the program in front of Mintz — all of whom were rejected for one reason or another. It’s not just a case of having the same blood type as the recipient.  

Mintz was in hospital for two days and back at work after two weeks. The operation was done laparoscopically, new at the time, so there is minimal scarring. He said he had severe discomfort for two days.

Two months after the transplant, Mintz agreed to meet the recipient. He needed convincing it was a good idea, but the recipient wanted to meet him to say, “Thank you.” 

 “I was more nervous about meeting the recipient than going for the op,” Mintz said. “I walked into the room and I saw a tiny African American woman holding a big bouquet of flowers and smiling. It had to be her. We hugged each other so hard.”

Gennet Belay, a mother of two, was an immigrant who had endured pain, prison, torture and starvation in Ethiopia. She’d been seriously ill with kidney failure for 20 years and was days from death before Harold Mintz saved her life. Mintz insists he got as much out of this as Belay did.

The two families became the best of friends, celebrate Belay’s “re-birthday” together every year and speak regularly on the phone. Their bond is unbreakable and unshakeable. The Belay family still lives back East but has stayed with the Mintzes in Paradise Cove.

Mintz, Susan and Shy moved to Malibu eight years ago. Mintz works with film director Tom Shadyac at Shady Acres Entertainment. 

His business has always been in marketing and communications, but his passion is giving talks to groups and high schools in Malibu about ticking the box on their driving license to be an organ donor.

 “I share my story, but I don’t want people to do what I did — just to think about being an organ donor, not ignore the question as most people do,” he said.

If a hundred people tick the box to be an organ donor, only one of them will die in such a way that their organs can be used, Mintz explained. Doctors would consult family first and then check online that you have “ticked the box.” 

Mintz isn’t worried that his son or one of his siblings might need a kidney one day. 

“I have so many friends who would raise their hands and say, ‘Take mine,’ if one of my family needed one,” he said.

 

For more information, visit www.donatelife.net or email haroldharold13@yahoo.com.